South African writer Juby Mayet died in 2019 at the age of 82. She wrote her autobiography in 1997, but it has only been published now, 25 years later. Freedom Writer: My Life and Times finally puts the spotlight on a pre-eminent figure in South African journalism.
Mayet was a reporter in Johannesburg from 1957 to 1978, writing for important popular and political publications during those two decades. These included the tabloid Golden City Post, the famous Drum magazine, the UBJ Bulletin published by the anti-apartheid Union of Black Journalists, and the anti-apartheid magazine The Voice.
For black South Africans, apartheid society was exploitative, violent and demeaning, making black writing culturally and politically indispensable. Blacks saw themselves and their experiences represented in a way they recognized and appreciated from the Golden City Post and Drum. The UBJ Bulletin and The Voice dared to publish openly critical accounts of the brutality of the apartheid regime.
From the late 1960s Mayet also became a leading anti-apartheid reporter – she preferred the term “freedom writer” – using her typewriter to tell the truth to those in power and face the consequences.
Read more: The heyday of Drum journalism remains cause for celebration – 70 years later
I first met Mayet in 2018 when I was interviewing her about her reporting in the 1960s on the persecution of “blended” couples who violated the Immorality Act, the notorious apartheid law that made it illegal to have sex outside of marriage to have crossed the color line. I quickly realized what an amazing person she was and what an important reporter she had been.
As a historian, I have long written about women whose skillful and courageous efforts to navigate life in the patriarchal South African society have gone largely unnoticed. Mayet too has been overlooked, in her case by researchers celebrating South Africa’s rich history of journalism and literature. For example, in the 1950s and 1960s, Drum Magazine was known for producing iconic black male writers such as Can Themba, Bloke Modisane, and others. But Mayet was also a graduate of the Drum School of Journalism. It was there, clearly, but somehow invisible to the researchers.
Luckily her autobiography has now been published, along with an afterword I wrote to give more details of her achievements. I hope she now gets the publicity she deserves.
Printed by Fietas
Mayet was born in 1937 to a Malay family, a group categorized as black under apartheid. Her autobiography tells the story of growing up in Fietas, a neighborhood near downtown Johannesburg, the country’s economic hub. Originally designated as a Malaysian site, after the passage of the Group Areas Act (1950), Fietas was demolished and redesignated as a ‘white’ neighborhood.
It was in Fietas that Mayet developed her cosmopolitan sensibility. The small, vibrant community was culturally diverse; Malays, Indians, coloreds and a few poor whites lived peacefully side by side. She was raised Muslim, but, she writes, “as a child, growing up in slums where people lived together, mixed,” she had neighbors, friends, and a lover from different cultural and religious backgrounds. Fietas taught her to look beyond racial labels, and his imprint on her psyche helps explain her lifelong hatred of apartheid, which aimed to differentiate and distance people from one another.
Discover the wonder of words
Mayet has always loved to read and wanted to be a writer. She began writing short stories as a teenager and, remarkably, her first was published when she was just 17 years old. She had “decided a long time ago that I wasn’t going to get married and I wasn’t going to fall into the rut that I saw a lot of women find themselves in.”
Her big break came when she was hired to do freelance work for the Golden City Post. She impressed Post and Drum executives and owner Jim Bailey, who personally hired her as a young reporter in 1957. She said she always felt that she worked for both publications because they shared staff and offices, and encouraged a shared readership.
She began reporting on social and community events and wrote advice columns for youth and women, offering recipes and fashion tips. She worked full-time for Drum in the 1960s, where she writes that she “really found my wings” as a writer. She began writing feature articles, opinion pieces, short stories, poetry, and more.
The freedom fighter
Over time, Mayet’s work became overtly political. Some of the stories she was most proud of were about leading black anti-apartheid activists whom she admired, such as Robert Sobukwe and Nontsikelelo Biko, Steve Biko’s widow.
Mayet became a reporter when journalism was a male domain and a sexist profession. The famed literary renaissance of Sophiatown, a legendary black neighborhood that was also destroyed and rededicated and that included Drum and the Post, had been unrelentingly macho. Historian Rob Nixon called it “airlessly masculine and sometimes misogynistic”. That’s why she made a cover girl in 1957, which she didn’t want to be. She wanted to be seen as she saw herself, as a serious writer. Almost from the start, she has been critical of sexist traditions and attitudes that limit girls’ imaginations and women’s life choices.
In the 1960s she began to ridicule and then openly criticize apartheid ideology and laws in her reports, columns and short stories.
In 1973 she joined the Union of Black Journalists, which soon “became my life”. She helped publish UBJ Bulletin, which was banned after its coverage of the 1976 Soweto Uprising, and then The Voice. In 1978 she was arrested for violating the Homeland Security Act and spent almost five months in detention without a trial. After her release, she was “banned,” making it illegal for her to perform or speak in public and for the press to publish or report on her words. These regime reprisals caused her and her family great emotional and financial hardship and ruined her career.
Time to remember Juby Mayet
The fact that Mayet, a self-proclaimed “extremely shy” black girl from a poor family, had the audacity to pursue her desire to be a writer in apartheid South Africa is remarkable. That she was able to build a career in the male-dominated, sexist world of journalism documenting the absurdities and atrocities of apartheid is extraordinary. The fact that she did this as a widow raising eight children on a black reporter’s paycheck is nothing short of incredible.
Her career was neglected in part because she was very humble. After writing her autobiography in 1997, she didn’t try to get it published because she doubted people would want to read about her.
Luckily, Jacana Media, an independent South African publisher, brought her autobiography to life.
Mayet is long overdue to be seriously considered as a writer. Hopefully her autobiography will ensure she finally gets the recognition and admiration she deserves.